America wants a king.
No, of course we don’t, you’re undoubtedly thinking right now. That’s preposterous. We’re a proud democracy full of rugged, independently minded individuals who cherish freedom, and are willing to die for it. We would never bow down to a monarch. That’s what that whole American Revolution thing was all about, right? Kings and queens are for Europeans, and perhaps the odd Broadway musical. Who wants an American king?
We do, it seems, and we set about electing him every four years.
Historical accounts often have it that the nation’s elite asked George Washington to become king after the Revolutionary War, which was an offer he promptly refused. While the reliability of this claim may be in doubt, the fact that the story has perpetuated says a lot about the American psyche. We rejected the notion of an elected a king, but if our obsession with the British Royal Family is any example, we’re still fascinated by heredity and the ‘right’ to rule.
People yearn for continuity and familiarity—the power of the brand, if you will. If you like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, perhaps you’ll check out his other flicks. If George H. Bush was an idol of yours, then maybe you were a fan of his son as well, at least until things fell apart, that is … .
The backstories of our elected leaders are important. Where do they come from? Are they from famous families? Did they attend Ivy League schools? Are they related to prominent political figures? Does royal blood course through their veins? If we can figure out what makes them special, apart from a noble birthright, by tying them to something we already know, then we might be able to gain some insight into where we’re headed. That’s why we just might elect Hilary Clinton president (queen, not king) in 2016. Hers is a familiar and successful brand, and when heralded as a portent of good, could alleviate some of our anxiety when it comes to the unknown.
To his eternal credit, George Washington did everything in his power to make sure the American presidency wouldn’t mimic the royal courts in Europe, which he apparently abhorred. Washington resigned after his second term, even though he could have potentially ruled for the rest of his life. He was a reluctant president, who disliked and distrusted political parties, believed in neutrality, and vehemently fought against elevating the status of president to king.
Some nations have prime ministers, while others have presidents, a combination of both, or perhaps a chancellor. The process of electing heads of state in the democratic world varies from place to place, but nowhere, as far as I have ever seen, does any modern society prepare for the arrival of a new leader with such noise, and in such a protracted manner, as the United States.
The pageantry begins more than a year before the actual election. From debates, primaries and conventions, to wild accusations and claims, overblown rhetoric and the inevitable scandals that follow, the country descends into a seemingly never-ending circus, brimming over with glamour and ridicule. It’s a ritual, and often-painful process befitting the ascension and coronation of a king. The entire world tunes into America come election season. It’s one of the greatest shows on earth—a comedy and drama, and sometimes tragedy, all rolled into one.
Still not convinced? Let’s consider the Birthers, perhaps the most fervently vocal opponents of Barack Obama. The nature of their challenge to his legitimacy, at least officially, isn’t the color of his skin or his policies, but rather Article Two of the Constitution, which stipulates that a president must be born an American. In effect, by insisting he was born elsewhere, Birthers believe Obama is an illegitimate ruler, simply by his lack of birthright. Europe monarchs, and those who once aspired to the crown, used similar tactics to justify their claims, or else remove the competition. Instead of a birth certificate, they looked for noble lineage and the existence or absence of royal blood, however that happened to be defined at the time.
Kings derived their power from God, or so went the common belief. This was called divine right. American presidents, and politicians in general, talk about God all of the time. While most of them (I hope) don’t assert divine or noble right, they often tie themselves to political dynasties, like the Clintons, Kennedys, Rockefellers and Roosevelts, in order to justify the strength of their claims to power, just as any good prince or princess would do.
George Washington was an extremely religiously tolerant man who, as a general rule, refrained from invoking the name of God too often during the course of his political life. It seems he believed in God, or ‘Providence,’ as he so often labeled it, but not in the rights of men to rule in God’s name. Even if modern political leaders don’t come out and say, “I have been appointed by God to rule,” I suspect that in a country as religious as ours, there are quite a few constituents who believe heaven has blessed their particular candidate’s tenure, not unlike the kings of old.
When a king, or a president, is given immense power, and his people’s faith, he’s often expected to work miracles beyond the capacity of a mere man, regardless if his claims to power comes from the electorate, or heaven above. And when he fails to meet the high expectations of the populace, he can either accept the blame (perhaps unjustly, but not always), or suppress dissent, until a new president who would be king is elected. In a nation with over 300 million people, it seems unreasonable to put all of our expectations on one man, but still, we tend to do so anyway.
The concept of the ‘elected king’ is nothing new. The Serbians once elected their sovereign, as did the Vikings, and the nobles in the Holy Roman Empire. With the amount of attention, hope and reproach placed on the American president, it seems we do too, even if he goes by a different title.
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